An HH-60 Pave Hawk crew conducts search and rescue operations over Galveston, Texas, Sept. 13 after Hurricane Ike. The crew is assigned to the 331st Air Expeditionary Group at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)

When We Fail to Give: Dehumanization and Giving Aid to Outgroups

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people noticed that it was taking a while for anyone to swoop in and start helping the situation. Many have pointed to racial and class-based prejudice, noting that many of the hurricane’s victims were poor African Americans, raising the question: “what if they were white?

Decades of social psychological research suggest that these social issues could very well play a role in emergency responses. Last week, in fact, I wrote about research on helping behavior and how people are especially likely to help people who seem similar to them. In other words, if I feel like we belong to the same group, I’m more likely to help you.

This prompted an interesting question from a Twitter follower about how these things play out when money gets involved. Could it be that people are less likely to donate to a cause when the victim is someone from another group? If you live in the U.S., would you be more likely to donate to a charity helping American children or a charity helping Ethiopian children?

Ingroups and Outgroups

As I explained in that other article, people are more likely to help someone in their own group (the “ingroup“) than someone who seems like he or she is part of a different group (the “outgroup“). Social psychological research treats these group divides in all sorts of ways: men vs. women, white Americans vs. black Americans, upper class vs. lower class…they’re all examples of potential ingroups and outgroups.

In fact, even when everyone knows that the basis of a group difference is completely arbitrary (like flipping a coin), people favor their own groups over the outgroup.

Perceiving Humanity in Someone of Another Group

Okay, so people tend to give preference to their own group and can end up discriminating against other groups. But why?

soldier-708711_640One answer is that we tend to see less humanity in people from outgroups. [1]The fancy psychological word for this is “infrahumanization.” Less humanity, less of an urge to help.

Jacques-Phillippe Leyens and colleagues have considered this question by getting people to think about emotions. Think about it: there are a bunch of emotions, and some of them are more complex than others. Some of the more basic (or “primary”) emotions are ones we think can apply to humans and non-humans alike. These are emotions like “pain,” “anger,” or “panic.” Sure, human beings experience these emotions, but we also tend to think that other animals can experience them as well.

Some emotions, though, seem distinctly human (“secondary” emotions). These are emotions like “guilt,” “resentment,” and “remorse.”

So, knowing that we think about some emotions as especially “human,” the question is: do we think other people experience these emotions differently depending on whether they’re in our ingroup or our outgroup?

That turns out to be the case. In general, people ascribe less human emotion to outgroups than to ingroups. In other words, they dehumanize outgroups. For example, one study showed that white American participants ascribed less of the human-specific emotions to Native Americans after reading about the violence that their ingroup had enacted on that particular outgroup.

Dehumanizing the Outgroup After Hurricane Katrina

Does any of this relate to the slow response following Hurricane Katrina? Well, one set of researchers wanted to find out.

hurricane-katrina-180538_1280Amy Cuddy and her colleagues surveyed people two weeks after the disaster.[2]Although their participants included people of varying backgrounds, in this article, I’m going to focus on the results with the white survey respondents because they most directly speak to the ingroup vs. outgroup questions. They asked the survey respondents to read a short story about some Katrina victims, but they used two slightly different versions of the story. In one version, they suggested that the victims were black, using the names Tenesha and Tyrell. In the other version, the names (Amanda and Joshua) suggested the victims were white. Other than the names, though, the stories were identical.

After reading the story, everyone was asked to do two things: (1) report how much they thought the people in the story were feeling an assortment of emotions and (2) report whether they were going to volunteer time to the hurricane relief effort.

First, as you’d expect from all that other research, when white participants thought the victims were also white (i.e., in their ingroup), they thought the victims were feeling greater levels of those “human” emotions like guilt and resentment than when they thought the victims were black (i.e., in their outgroup). Notably, the names in the story didn’t change perceptions of the general emotions like pain and anger–just the human ones.

Most importantly, though, the perceptions of human emotions were related to helping intentions. That is, when it came to the people who read about an outgroup victim, it was the people who perceived less human emotions who were unlikely to help out. The people who were willing to help outgroup victims, though, were the ones who transcended the usual tendency and actually did ascribe more human emotion to the victims.

Humanity, Empathy, and Altruism

We’ve known for a long time that one important element when it comes to helping other people is empathy. The easier it is to understand someone else’s pain, the more likely we are to help. Empathy, of course, is a lot easier when we feel shared humanity with another person.

Empathizing with outgroups and seeing issues from their perspective has been shown to increase people’s willingness to help others. So in times of crisis, when you must rely on the kindness of strangers, emphasizing a victim’s humanity may help promote greater empathy and altruism.


Feature Image: “After Hurricane Ike in Texas” by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr. (U.S. Air Force photo) –  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The fancy psychological word for this is “infrahumanization.”
2. Although their participants included people of varying backgrounds, in this article, I’m going to focus on the results with the white survey respondents because they most directly speak to the ingroup vs. outgroup questions.

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